Latest from MIT : Learning to fly

Andrea Henshall, a retired major in the U.S. Air Force and current MIT PhD student, has completed seven tours of combat, two years of aerial circus performance, and three higher education degrees (so far). But throughout each step of her journey, all roads seemed to point to MIT.

Currently working on her doctoral degree with an MIT master’s already in her toolkit, she is quick to attribute her academic success to MIT’s open educational resources. “I kept coming back to MIT-produced open source learning,” she says. “MIT dominates in educational philanthropy when it comes to free high-quality learning sources.” To this day, Henshall recommends MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) and MITx courses to students and her fellow veterans who are transitioning out of the service. 

A love of flight and a drive to excel

Henshall first discovered OCW as she was pursuing her master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. Transitioning from an applied engineering program at the United States Air Force Academy to a more theoretical program proved a challenge for Henshall, and her first semester grades got her put on academic probation. During Independent Activities Period, she took Professor Gilbert Strang’s linear algebra courses on OCW, which included both videos and homework. Henshall found Strang very engaging and easy to learn from and found it helpful to work through the homework when they had the solutions available. She was able to lift her grades the following semester, and by the end of her program, she was getting all A’s. Henshall says, “OpenCourseWare really saved me. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to complete my master’s.” 

Ever since Henshall learned the term “astronautical engineer” in the fourth grade, she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. That early love of outer space and building things led her to a bachelor’s degree in astronautical engineering and the Air Force. There she served as a research and development officer, instructor pilot, and chief financial officer of her squadron. But a non-combat-related injury forced her to medically retire from being a pilot. “I was not doing well physically, and it was impossible for me to get hired to be a pilot outside of the Air Force.” After a brief detour as a part-time aerial circus performer, she decided to go back to school.

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Learning how to learn

Working outside of academia for eight years proved to be a tough transition. Henshall says, “I had to translate the work I had done in the military into something relevant for an academic application, and the language they were looking for was very different from what I was used to.” She thought acquiring more recent academic work might help improve her application. She attended Auburn University for her second master’s degree (this time in computer science and software engineering) and started a PhD. Again she turned to MIT OCW to supplement her studies. 

Henshall says, “I remembered vividly how much it had helped me in 2005, so of course that’s where I was going to start. Then I noticed that OCW linked to MITx, which had more interactive quizzes.” The OCW platform had also become more robust since she had first used it. “Back then, it was new, there wasn’t necessarily a standard,” she says. Over 10 years later, she found that most courses had more material, videos, and notes that more closely approximated an MIT course experience. Those additional open education resources gave Henshall an extra edge to complete a 21-month program in 12 months with a 4.0 GPA. Her advisor told her that she had the best thesis defense he had seen in 25 years. 

In 2019, Henshall’s success helped her get accepted to MIT’s PhD program in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, in the Autonomy and Embedded Robotics Accelerated (AERA) lab under the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS), with a Lester Durand Gardner Fellowship. Her focus is controls systems with a minor in quantum information. She says, “I’m literally living my dream. I’m at my dream school with my dream advisor.” Working with Professor Sertac Karaman in LIDS, Henshall plans to write her thesis on multi-agent reinforcement learning. But her relationship with online learning is far from over; again she has turned to OCW and MITx resources for the foundation to succeed in subjects such as controls, machine learning, quantum mechanics, and quantum computation.

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When the pandemic struck the East Coast, Henshall was only nine months into her PhD program at MIT. The pivot to online learning made it difficult to continue building relationships with classmates. But what was a new course experience for many learners during the pandemic felt very familiar to Henshall. “I had a leg up because I already knew how to learn through prerecorded videos on a computer instead of three-dimensional human standing in front of a chalkboard. I had already learned how to learn.”

A lifelong commitment to service

Henshall plans to return to the Department of Defense or related industries. Currently, she works collaboratively on two major projects related to her PhD thesis and her career path after she completes the program. The first project is an AI accelerator program through the Air Force. Her work with unmanned aerial vehicles (a.k.a. drones) uses a small quadrotor to autonomously and quickly search a building using reinforcement learning. The primary intended use is search and rescue. The second project involves research into multi-agent reinforcement learning and pathfinding. While also intended for search and rescue, they could be used for a variety of non-emergency inspection purposes as well. 

Henshall is eager to share open education resources. At Auburn she shared OCW materials with her classmates, and now she uses them with the students she tutors. She’s also committed to sharing knowledge and resources with her fellow service members, and is an active member of a number of veterans’ organizations. With the Warrior-Scholar Project, she answers questions from enlisted people going into undergraduate programs, ranging from “What’s parking like?” to “How did you prepare for school?” As a Service to School ambassador, she is assigned to mentor veterans who are transitioning out of the military and looking to apply to graduate school, usually MIT hopefuls or other competitive schools. She’s able to draw from her own application experience to help others identify the core message their application should communicate and finesse the language to sound less like a military brief and more like the “academic speak” they will encounter moving forward.

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Henshall says, “My trajectory would be so different if MITx and OCW didn’t exist, and I feel that’s true for so many thousands of other students. So many other institutions have copied the model, but MIT was the first and it’s still the best.”

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